Recently, I gave a talk entitled, “Leading in the 21st Century: Do You Have What it Takes?” As I started to write it, I thought, what a misleading title! It should have been, “Leading in the 21st Century: Do You Really Want To? (Otherwise said as: Are you crazy?)”
All kidding aside, the challenges of leading any organization in the 21st century are huge. To be successful, it isn’t just a question of do you have the skills, talents, personality, etc., to be a leader—a very high achievement that few truly can claim; it is also a question of do you really want to do this job, despite all of the challenges, or do you just want the title, the money,the power, the “prestige”? Seriously. There are some who just want the latter and have no interest in the former.
Before going too deep into this topic, however, I want to be clear, as talking about leading in the nonprofit sector can be confusing. Who, exactly, do I mean? The top of the paid organization chart? The volunteer leadership, i.e. the board? Or, the senior managers, program directors, etc.? And my answer is we are talking about all of them: because unless we think of all of these points in our organization as leaders, we probably aren’t hiring, promoting, selecting, filling those positions well and smartly.
So, do you have what it takes to be a leader? There are some generic attributes of a good leader, regardless of organizational mission, size, age, geographic location, etc. These characteristics transcend everything, including time. In no particular order, as they are all necessary, but no one is sufficient all by itself, they follow.
I’m going to combine the first four, as there is a theme:
- Great leaders embody honesty, integrity, transparency, and abhor manipulation
These are each different and totally complimentary. If you don’t know or understand the differences and nuances, I suggest you spend some time with first, a really good dictionary and second, some good “Quadrant 2” time (from Stephen Covey’s time management matrix).
Here’s the rest of the list of characteristics. Great leaders:
- are really, really smart—that doesn’t mean really, really educated, but really, really smart; there is a huge difference. Both can coexist in the same person, but the former in no way guarantees the latter.
- have charisma
- are savvy about interpersonal dynamics, of groups of three or more or of just two; they are students of behavior at the collective and individual levels.
This is not the same thing as being a people person. You can be a total people person and yet not be able to identify a group dynamic if it were lit up in neon. Those savvy about interpersonal dynamics are keen listeners and observers of others; they understand that success is always the result of the interplay of multiple people working together, formally or informally; they know composition of groups matters; and they know how to facilitate, from afar and in-your-face, and achieve the best dynamic. This is way beyond being a people person.
- are collaborative and understand when it is time to be the leader and when it is time to work with other leaders.
- are both visionary and tactical.
To be a great leader, you must be both leader and manager. If not a manager, then you need to recognize that and hire people to manage for you and to manage you; and that is too heavy and expensive an infrastructure for most nonprofits to sustain. Alternatively, a poor manager can be taught the skills to be a better manager, though there is no guarantee that the lessons will stick. You cannot, however, teach a person to be a leader, though you can hone and sharpen leadership abilities. For example, you cannot teach someone charisma: she either has it or she doesn’t; she is either believed in and respected, or she is not; but shy of brainwashing, you can’t teach people to believe in someone who lacks charisma.
- and lastly, a great leader has humility and the smallest ego in the room.
Don’t get me wrong: there have been famous leaders who have lacked one or some or even perhaps many of these characteristics. But I would not call them good, let alone great, leaders—just famous. Or, perhaps it would be more appropriate to call them infamous leaders.
For leaders in the nonprofit sector, there is, of course, one other key characteristic which good and great leaders must have: passion for an organization’s mission.
This, in so many ways, is the easy part of being a leader. These qualities should be non-negotiable. A person either has them or doesn’t: we can perfect and polish them but we cannot hire/promote/invite her today and “change her ways tomorrow.” (apologies to Guys and Dolls and Frank Loesser).
It simply doesn’t work that way. And since the first characteristic of a leader that I mentioned was honesty, here’s a word of advice that you ignore at your own peril: as you self-assess—or assess others as a member of a hiring committee, board development committee, promoting supervisor, etc.—be honest in that assessment. You do a huge disservice to yourself, your organization, the people around you, etc. if you do anything less.
Now, you, your designated leader, has what it takes to be a leader. Next post will get to the question of whether you have what it takes to be leader in this century.